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by James Raia
September 5, 2016
Photography by Cor Vos
Bike racing is bike racing, but nothing can prepare a developing rider for the elite level of the WorldTour.
Friends and teammates can tell stories about the high speeds, the cutthroat racing, the massive peloton, the narrow roads, and the overall pageantry, but until a rider is in the mix, they can’t possibly understand what it’s like to compete at cycling’s highest level.
Canada’s Mike Woods was told all about it, and now he knows.
After four seasons racing for Continental teams, Woods, 29, is nine months into his first season with Cannondale-Drapac. Like a road course with few flat sections, Woods’ WorldTour debut has had its ups and downs. It began in January at the Santos Tour Down Under, where he finished fifth overall at the WorldTour opener, continued into the spring classics and short European stage races, and progressed to the recent Olympic road race in Rio de Janeiro.
“Guys who came before me told me, ‘It’s really difficult, and it’s really professional,’” said Woods, who this week is competing in his fourth Tour of Alberta. “And all of it is true. There are no easy days on the WorldTour. Every race is that much harder and you have to fighter harder to get in position.
“But all around, the challenge, the spotlight, it’s awesome. I’m relishing that. It’s been really cool to always have a helicopter following you, and being in a team bus and people asking for autographs, and racing against some of the best riders in the world. I am really enjoying that.”
Broken bones in crashes in far-flung countries, including a broken femur in the Tour of Poland three weeks before Summer Olympics, has hindered Woods’ debut season. The result was that Woods began the Tour of Alberta with only 29 racing days this year.
“It’s been an amazing experience. I have had a lot of highs and lows this year,” said Woods. “I have started with a lot of highs at the Tour Down Under and it continued even to Flèche Wallonne. But the second half of the season has been a nosedive.”
Woods’ cycling emergence is among the most unique in the sport. His athletic prowess was running, and he was among the best milers in Canada. He ran a 3:57:48 mile, and 3,000 meters in 7:58.48, at age 18, launching him into the top 50 in the world. Woods won the 1,500 meters in the junior division at the 2005 Pan-American Games, and envisioned a clear path to the Summer Olympics. It never happened.
After graduating from the University of Michigan in 2008 on a full track scholarship, Woods’ first athletic career fizzled. Surgeries in 2008 and 2010, and improper healing, prompted his departure from running.
Like many other athletes,rehabilitating from injury and disillusioned from other sports, Woods began cycling as an alternative. He was encouraged by friends to enter races and his aggressive climbing skill developed quickly. He’s now fully immersed at the sport’s top level, but it sometimes still provides a reality check.
Woods was among eight riders to appear at the pre-race Tour of Alberta press conference, a dais that included defending champion Bauke Mollema, Frank Schleck, Ryder Hesjedal, and Chris Horner.
“I was here in the first year. I crashed out and nobody knew who I was,” said Woods. “But here I am four years later at the press conference with some of the best riders in the world.”
Woods’ 2016 season of turbulence included a miserable day at the Olympic road race. On a day when nearly 80 riders abandoned, Woods persevered. He finished 20 minutes behind winner Greg Van Avermaet, and the severity of the 256-kilometer route took a harsh toll. Woods said he vomited during the race, adding that he’d never dug so deep just to finish an event.
Considering his previous employment, Woods isn’t likely to complain. The Tour of Alberta’s presenting sponsor is a financial institution, and Woods drew chuckles at the press conference about his comments regarding formerly working in a bank, and how “it sucked.”
“Working at a bank gave me a lot of perspective; I was terrible at it,” he said. “Coming from an athletic background and getting into the banking world and then coming out of it was difficult.
“When I was a runner, the world revolved around me,” Woods said. “When you work at a bank, it’s the complete opposite. You’re just a very, very small cog in a very big wheel. Experiencing that was tough after having a background where everything was about me. It’s also made me cherish that, now I’m back as a professional in a competition perspective and everyone treats me so well. I know that it’s not always going to exist, and I’m not going to take it for granted.”
Nearly a decade removed from elite-level running, Woods may have left the competitive levels of the sport, but it hasn’t left him. He still runs, accompanied by his wife, also a former accomplished runner. Woods watched the Olympic track and field events in Rio de Janeiro, and was inspired to run competitively again. But he’s also a realist.
“Cycling is my true love now,” said Woods, who has renewed to compete next season for Cannondale-Drapac. “I loved running, but there were so many instances where I ached, and things weren’t working properly. But with cycling it’s so much more pain-free.
“In the off-season I still go running with my wife. She used to be a competitive runner, that’s how we met. Unfortunately with this femur fracture, I am not sure if this off-season I will be doing any more running. We’ll see.”
Following the Tour of Alberta, Woods will compete in the upcoming WorldTour events in Quebec City and Montreal, concluding his season with a few one-day races in Italy.
James Raia has reported on cycling for more than 30 years and is co-author of Tour de France For Dummies. In addition to writing about cycling and other sports, he contributes business and lifestyle content to several publications, and has been the editor and publisher of the automotive website theweeklydriver.com since 2004. James lives with his wife Gretchen and two cats in Sacramento, California.